A Tale of Two Labels: Organic and Non-GMO

The Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied seal is appear­ing on a grow­ing num­ber of food prod­ucts. Sales of Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied prod­ucts increased 66% in 2012, top­ping $2.4 bil­lion in sales—and that doesn’t even include sales of Whole Foods Market’s branded prod­ucts that are non-GMO verified.

“Threatens the organic label”

As the Non-GMO Project logo appears on more and more gro­cery shelves, some mem­bers of the organic food com­mu­nity expressed con­cerns that non-GMO will hurt sales of organic foods.

“The non-GMO label threat­ens the USDA Organic label,” says Greg Lickteig, direc­tor, The Scoular Company, which sells organic and non-GMO grains. “Given two prod­ucts on the gro­cery store shelf, one being non-GMO and the other organic, the non-GMO prod­uct will most cer­tainly be less expensive.”

Rakesh Raniga, pres­i­dent, Indianlife Foods, which sells both organic and Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied prod­ucts, agrees. “Non-GMO ver­i­fied prod­ucts will be less costly, there­fore some con­sumers may choose them over organic.”

Lynn Clarkson, pres­i­dent of Clarkson Grain, a sup­plier of organic and non-GMO grains, also sees non-GMO com­pet­ing with organic. “Yes, I think that a non-GMO label will com­pete with the USDA organic label for buy­ers’ food dol­lars,” he says. “I do not have a sense of how much dam­age it will do. The best way to avoid GMOs is to buy foods graced with the USDA organic label.”

However, he also says that a non-GMO label could be a step­ping stone to more organic demand. “If inter­est in a non-GMO label sen­si­tizes buy­ers to the con­se­quences of farm­ers widely using pes­ti­cides and syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers, such devel­op­ment might actu­ally increase demand for cer­ti­fied organic foods.”

The Organic Trade Association hasn’t looked at any pos­si­ble impact of the Non-GMO Project on organic, says Laura Batcha, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Organic Trade Association. However, she says OTA sur­veys show increas­ing aware­ness and con­cern about GMOs among organic con­sumers. “The num­ber of par­ents that cite avoid­ing GMOs as a rea­son to eat organ­ics rose to 22%, up from 17% in 2011,” Batcha says. “We take that as a pos­i­tive indi­ca­tion that con­sumers see GMOs as a core rea­son to pur­chase organic.”

Compatible with organics

Jim Riddle, coor­di­na­tor, grad­u­ate stu­dent organic research grant pro­gram at the Ceres Trust and for­mer chair of the National Organic Standards Board, doesn’t see a con­flict between non-GMO ver­i­fied and organic. “Many of those (non-GMO) claims appear on organic prod­ucts, and they are com­pat­i­ble with organic prod­ucts and mes­sag­ing,” he says.

Furthermore Riddle says “Both manda­tory GMO labels and vol­un­tary non-GMO labels will force organic pro­duc­ers and mar­keters to up their game and describe how their pro­duc­tion sys­tems have been shown to pro­tect soil health and water qual­ity; pre­vent pes­ti­cide con­t­a­m­i­na­tion; and build bio­di­ver­sity bet­ter than non-organic systems.”

As Riddle points out, many organic prod­ucts also fea­ture the Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied seal. According to Megan Westgate, Non-GMO Project exec­u­tive direc­tor, more than half of the Project’s 9,000 ver­i­fied prod­ucts are organic.

Also, lead­ing organic food com­pa­nies such as Eden Foods, Nature’s Path, and Lundberg Family Farms have been strong sup­port­ers of the Non-GMO Project since its founding.

Westgate says both labels are needed to help con­sumers avoid GMOs. “We are com­mit­ted to help­ing peo­ple under­stand the respec­tive val­ues of cer­ti­fied organic and Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied, and we reg­u­larly encour­age peo­ple to seek out both labels as the gold stan­dard,” she says.

Ken Whitman, pres­i­dent of Natural Vitality [and pub­lisher of Organic Connections], which sells organic sup­ple­ments that are also Non-GMO Project ver­i­fied, says the non-GMO label is needed. “All food isn’t organic and in the absence of GMO label­ing there needs to be a way shop­pers can be assured that the prod­ucts they are buy­ing are not genet­i­cally mod­i­fied. The Non-GMO Project has filled that need,” he says.

Room for both labels

Several organic indus­try experts say that edu­cated organic con­sumers would already know that organic is one of their best options to avoid GMOs since the National Organic Program rules con­sider genetic engi­neer­ing an “excluded method.”

“The true organic dis­ci­ple will under­stand that ‘organic’ has to be non-GMO,” says Steve Ford, pres­i­dent of Stonebridge, Ltd., a sup­plier of non-GMO and organic soybeans. 

“When it comes to label­ing non-GMO prod­ucts it must be under­stood that if you’re cer­ti­fied organic then you’re non-GMO,” says Randal Buresh, pres­i­dent of Oregon’s Wild Harvest. “The Non-GMO Project may help spread the word about organic farm­ing, help­ing to clar­ify what being organic is all about.”

Brendan McEntee, pres­i­dent of Cook Natural Products (also not a Non-GMO Project com­pany), agrees. “For the informed organic con­sumer there will not be any con­fu­sion about organic not being non-GMO.”

Though he also says “Certain organic prod­ucts may lose mar­ket share to cer­ti­fied non-GMO.”

Bob Sinner, pres­i­dent, SB&B Foods, a sup­plier of non-GMO and organic grains, sees a place for both non-GMO and organic label­ing. “I under­stand why the organic folks might try to pro­tect their label­ing turf, but as a uni­fied effort to sup­port the con­sumers that reject biotech I would hope they real­ize the ben­e­fits of both non-GMO and organic label­ing,” he says.

Whitman con­curs. “I don’t think we need a turf war between organic and non-GMO. It wouldn’t be pro­duc­tive. GMO is unpop­u­lar with health-conscious shop­pers. Organic is pop­u­lar. Can’t we just get along?” he says.